Appalachian Trail prepares for travelers


LEE -- By overnight campsite standards, the Upper Goose Pond cabin is luxurious lodging for hikers on the Berkshire section of the Appalachian Trail -- bunks for 16 people upstairs, a first-floor fireplace, covered porch, and a cook table in back of the cabin with a roof over it for hikers to use.

The one enclosed shelter along the 90-mile stretch of AT from the town of Mount Washington to Clarksburg gives a respite for many long-distance AT hikers, especially those traveling all 2,160 miles from Spring Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The hikers spend most nights in tents or open lean-to shelters, just as Douglas Wilcox of Lee did when he hiked the entire trail 27 years ago.

"Most people who go out on the trail respect it and protect it," Wilcox said. "My advice to hikers: Be one with the trail and be safe."

On Saturday, the opening of the cabin kicks-off the height of the AT hiking season in the Berkshires and along the length of the trail. Tens of thousands of men, women and children tackle some portion of the trail every year.

And it takes the same number or more volunteers to keep the AT safe and pristine.

Those who come to the Lee cabin for the evening will meet volunteer caretakers who man the rustic refuge from mid-May through late October.

Twenty-five to 30 members of the Berkshire chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club annually volunteer as caretakers, usually a week at a time, according to Jim Pelletier, chairman of the Massachusetts AT Committee and AMC-Berkshire volunteer.

"We have a caretaker from Texas who hiked through four or five years ago, went home and decided he wanted to return to give something back for the hospitality he received," Pelletier said.

AMC-Berkshire volunteers alone put in an average of 9,000 to 10,000 hours maintaining the trails, doing special projects to keep the AT easy to use and monitoring the trail, as well as taking care of the cabin.

Cosmo Catalano, with the Massachusetts AT Committee, coordinates the volunteers for the local AMC, one of four private/public agencies overseeing the Berkshire section of the trail. The National Park Service is the overall manager, but relies on the Massachusetts Department of Conservation for assistance as about half the 90 AT miles in the county cut through state parks and forests.

Catalano said the Appalachian Trail Conservancy rounds out the foursome of official stewards for the AT.

"Without all the major partners working closely together, I think the AT would quickly cease to be a continuous footpath," he said. "It's just too big for one entity to manage alone."

Along with the Upper Goose Pond cabin, which had about 1,500 overnight campers in 2013, hikers have 14 other overnight sites available on the Berkshire portion of the AT. The rest stops can include pads or platforms for pitching tents, small or large open shelters, or a combination of under-the-stars accommodations.

The sites are on a first-come, first-serve basis and intended for through-hikers -- who average six months to complete all 2,160 miles -- and people hiking significant sections of the trail for several days or weeks.

The key to all overnight sites is clean drinking water nearby, according to Wilcox, who owns Paperdilly in Lee with his wife, Sally. In 1987, at the age of 35, he hiked from Georgia to Maine in four months, and he appreciated how well-kept he found the trail -- especially along the Berkshire section.

"The quality of a shelter was a luxury, but not a necessity. I mostly used a tent," Wilcox said. "The main advantage to any site was it usually had a water source."

"The Berkshires has pretty good water along the trail, but you still need to treat it," Pelletier said. "I treat the water wherever I am."

As with any volunteer organization, AMC Berkshire needs people, said chapter leaders. The AMC regional office in Egremont organizes teen trail crews and bi-weekly projects open to all.

"We have a slow, but steady trickle of new volunteers," Catalano said. "Some join for just for one or two projects, others stay for years or decades. We hike, build, paint, maintain boundary lines, meet neighbors, move rocks, dig dirt, clear brush, monitor rare plants."

Catalano counts himself among the dozens of AT volunteers who got hooked on working and hiking the trail after his first project. His initiation came in May 1998 while clearing trails on Mount Greylock -- during a six-inch snowstorm.

"When I discovered that there was a lot more to the AT than clipping brush and moving rocks, I really began to develop a long-term interest, and the next year I joined the AT Committee," he said.


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